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Alzheimer's - Howard Gruetzner

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poems.

PART I

The Caregiver Experience

Alzheimer’s disease cannot be cured. Part I focuses on what we know about this disease and what we can do to care for individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. A better understanding of this condition and its behavioral manifestations enables caregivers to respond more effectively to the needs of loved ones.

Our beliefs about the Alzheimer’s patient and his or her behavior do not take into account the effects of brain impairment. We have no frame of reference through which brain-impaired behavior can be understood. Part I provides this perspective so that caregivers can more effectively and positively respond to the problems and needs of their loved ones.

The caregiver experience is characterized by the adaptability of the Alzheimer’s patient and his or her family to this illness. Part I examines this adjustment in several ways. Stages of the illness and the family adjustment are considered. A step-by-step guide describes the experience from the time initial symptoms are noticed to the point care is planned and caregiver stress is encountered. Practical approaches to these steps are considered. Community resources are described in the last chapter of Part I since social support is such an important way for caregivers to provide for the increasing needs of their loved ones and themselves.

Twilight

It’s that time again,

that time when day fades into night...

that time when—

if you were working late

(and I had a few minutes to wait),

I’d pick up the papers on the floor,

fluff up the pillows a bit,

and open the door to look for you.

It was good to sit on the sofa

and feel you close—

to hear about your day

and share mine with you.

It was always my favorite time of the day

when the bustle gave way

to the shared things we used to say.

Now I dread it—

I hate to sit and watch it come on—

without you.

It’s just a time I must learn to endure—

to live through.

Maude S. Newton

1

What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?

A Case History

Jewell Johnson had once been quite active in her neighborhood. She had also attended church regularly. These activities had not significantly changed following her husband’s death three years earlier. Her friends and family had been impressed with how well she made it through the grief and kept her life going. She had always been stronger and healthier than her husband. Mrs. Johnson was now 74 and seemed to be a model for aging.

Uncharacteristic Behavior

Several months ago, her closest neighbors began to notice changes. She dropped out of church. They discovered that her feelings had been hurt. Apparently, she had made some mistakes as the treasurer of her Sunday School class, losing several hundred dollars. That was not her story, though; Mrs. Johnson insisted that someone had stolen the money. It had all been cash, and for some reason she had never deposited it in the bank.

She began to stay home more and more often. It also surprised the neighbors that she discouraged their visits. They were becoming worried about her and considered calling relatives, but her son and daughter both lived several hundred miles away and telephoned regularly. Their professional jobs made it difficult to visit very often. The pastor tried to visit, but Jewell was uncharacteristically rude to him and other church members who tried to visit her.

Household Chores and Personal Hygiene Neglected

The yard was still covered with leaves left since the fall. It was now the middle of winter. On occasion, neighbors would check on Jewell. Several times a week, her morning newspapers remained in the yard, and this gave neighbors an excuse to check on her. She always came to the door in her robe and slippers. She thanked them for the paper, making excuses that she had a cold and was resting. She refused their offers to help her. If they pursued these offers too long, she would become more restless and agitated. A few times she had shut the door abruptly.

Her closest next-door neighbor called the daughter, Joan. Joan was caught off guard because the phone conversations with her mother—while briefer and more vague—had not been that different. Her mother had always been self-reliant and independent; it was no surprise that she was so reluctant to accept help. It was strange that Jewell never told her daughter of any problems. Maybe that was why the conversations were briefer and so general. The neighbor was asked to watch after Jewell, and the daughter called her mother.

Behavior Changes Denied

The conversation was not pleasant, nor was it very long. Jewell denied any problems and told her daughter the neighbor was meddling. Jewell thought the neighbor’s son was trying to get her house. The next-door neighbor had never been honest. As the paranoia became more vivid, Jewell became more upset and hung up on her daughter. Joan called the neighbor and said she would be down the following weekend.

Bills Unpaid

The next day, both the gas and electric company cut off their services to Jewell’s home. In the dead of winter, they do not usually cut off the services of elderly people. The neighbor argued on Jewell’s behalf but to no avail. She had not paid her bills for more than three months (about the same time she stopped attending church). Attempts to get Mrs. Johnson to the door failed. She would look out the window briefly, but that was all she would do. No one could get into the house. Neighbors called the daughter, but they could think of nothing else that would help.

Delusions Develop

Late that night, the neighbors were awakened by screaming outside Jewell’s house. It was nearly freezing, and she was outside her home in a gown. She was afraid of the neighbors who tried to help calm her. She kept talking about her husband roaming around in the attic. She was afraid of him. The police were called, and when they arrived on the scene, Mrs. Johnson was frightened and still very upset. She was quite confused and could only talk about her husband in the attic. They investigated and found no sign of anyone in the attic—just as they had expected. A crisis hot line was called, and Mrs. Johnson was hospitalized since she had become a danger to herself.

Closer examination of the household was revealing. There was no food. She probably had not eaten anything to speak of for several days. The kitchen was a mess and the gas burners were still turned on, although gas service had been terminated. The police explored the rest of the household. Clothes were lying around. The toilet had not been flushed for days, and Mrs. Johnson had had some accidents in her bedroom. Newspapers lay on the living room floor rolled up and unread. Bills and other mail were heaped in piles near the newspapers.

After being stabilized in the psychiatric hospital, a thorough examination was conducted. Upon its completion, only one conclusion could explain what had happened to Mrs. Jewell Johnson over the past year. Something had obviously been wrong before her behavior changes suggested it. In fact, it was admirable that she had so successfully compensated for the difficulties she was experiencing in memory and thinking. The diagnosis was inescapable—probable Alzheimer’s disease.

It was 1980, and her family and friends were bewildered. They had never heard of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). They had been prepared to accept a diagnosis of senility. Maybe depression or old age could explain her problems. In those days, older people with behavioral problems and psychiatric symptoms that now suggest dementia were hospitalized for evaluation when families could not manage them. Like the family and friends of Jewell Johnson, these individuals tried to understand what was happening and what, if anything, could be done.

Early Detection and Treatment

More people have heard of Alzheimer’s disease in this new millennium and may understand that it is a condition that affects the brain. However, they may not know much more today than the family and friends of Mrs. Johnson knew in 1980. Even when Alzheimer’s is suspected, too much time passes between observing symptoms and getting professional help. This is significant because treatments are now available that can slow the progression of the disease and help people with AD function better for a longer period of time.

It is important that treatment be initiated as soon as possible so that more extensive and irreversible deterioration of nerve cells in the brain can be delayed and symptoms can be managed. Then people may take part in decisions that affect them and learn to adapt to the disease. However, people still attribute symptoms of AD to other conditions and do not seek help. People who suspect that a loved one might be developing AD delay or avoid seeking a diagnosis. Since early symptoms develop slowly, they may not appear to be significant at first. Personality changes, poor judgment, and forgetfulness may be overlooked for a while. Those with early symptoms are able to compensate for them or offer other explanations that family members accept. Family members may be hesitant to seek professional help when early symptoms occur.

Alzheimer’s is a disease of the brain that causes a gradual but progressive loss of abilities in memory, thinking, reasoning, judgment, orientation, and speech. It causes an inability to recognize and identify objects and carry out motor activities. People with the disease are eventually unable to perform the most basic activities of daily living such as dressing, cooking, and bathing. AD is not the result of normal aging, but it does occur more frequently in those 65 years of age or older.

More Than Simple Forgetfulness

Alzheimer’s disease is far more serious than the occasional forgetfulness experienced by the elderly. In its early stages, however, the disease may be difficult to distinguish from ordinary forgetfulness. Because the disease affects the brain gradually and persons ordinarily will compensate for the early symptoms, neither the person with AD nor those around her may suspect a real problem at first. The results of Alzheimer’s slow but progressive damage to the brain may not be noticed until the person experiences greater than normal life stressors, major health problems, or a situation that stretches coping abilities to the breaking point; or until major behavior problems, a driving accident, unpaid bills, or significant changes in daily functioning make denial or avoidance of what is happening impossible.

Causes of Disease—Multiple Factors

Research has made considerable progress toward understanding the disease. Ongoing research is getting closer to unlocking the secrets of the disease. AD is not a simple disease with one obvious cause. It is a complicated disease that develops as the result of a complex cascade of events that occur over a period of time and affect the brain. Alzheimer’s disease results from a combination of genetic and environmental factors, as well as from other factors that are being identified. Nongenetic factors such as the free radical damage linked with oxidative stress, disease-related brain inflammation, and damage associated with brain infarcts are believed to play a role in the development of the disease. The multiple genetic and nongenetic mechanisms through which the disease develops demonstrate the difficulties researchers face in identifying a clear-cut cause that points to one definite treatment. Preventing or delaying AD involves multiple approaches.

Possible Causes

Alzheimer’s (pronounced ALTS-hi-merz) disease was first identified in 1906 by a German neurologist, Alois Alzheimer. His subject was a 51-year-old woman who exhibited problems with memory and disorientation. Later, Alzheimer identified depression and hallucinations as additional symptoms. The woman’s condition continued to deteriorate; a severe dementia was evident, and the woman eventually died at age 55 in a mental institution. An autopsy revealed that her brain had cortical atrophy and abnormalities in the cerebral cortex called neurofibrillary tangles and neuritic plaques. These changes in the brain were thought to have caused the impairment of the woman’s memory, her disorientation, and her cognitive and emotional decline.

Beta-amyloid, an abnormal protein aggregating into plaques outside of neurons, is implicated as being a possible cause, or very close to the cause, of AD. The tau protein, aggregating into twisted tangles inside neurons, is thought by some researchers to have a causative role in the disease process. Normal tau protein helps bind and stabilize microtubules, which are part of the internal, skeleton-like structure of the cell. In AD, tau is chemically altered, which causes microtubules to fall apart. The collapse of microtubules disrupts connections over which cell communications are transported.

Genetic factors are certainly involved in the disease, but Alzheimer’s is a genetically complex and heterogeneous disease. Only a small percentage of AD cases are actually caused by genetic defects. These will be considered below and in Chapter 4. Research has also identified genetic links to the disease. These genetic factors do not cause the disease, but they are associated with an increased risk of getting Alzheimer’s. Scientists are identifying other factors that might confer susceptibility for developing AD, for example, high-fat diets and high cholesterol levels. More research must be conducted before these and other findings can be considered conclusive. We do know that Alzheimer’s is caused by a combination of multiple causative and risk factors.

Genetic Causes and Risks

Genetic defects on three chromosomes—21, 14, and 1—are known to cause early-onset Alzheimer’s in a small number of families. The disease occurs before age 60 in these individuals. Autosomal-dominant inheritance is usually involved in early-onset cases. This form of inheritance occurs in 50 percent of first-degree blood relatives, for example, siblings or children of the AD person. Since this form of the disease develops between ages 30 and 60, and occurs in families, it is frequently called early-onset familial AD. It accounts for only 5 percent of Alzheimer’s disease cases. The most common form of Alzheimer’s occurs in persons who are 65 and older and thus it is called late-onset.

The only gene confirmed to be involved in late-onset AD is APOE. This apolipoprotein E gene has three normally occurring forms called alleles. These alleles are designated as 2, 3, and 4. Unlike the Alzheimer’s disease genes on chromosomes 21, 14, and 1 that determine the early-onset form of the disease, apoE-4 (allele 4) acts as a risk factor, but not all people with apoE-4 get AD. In contrast, having apoE-2 is a protective factor, and people with this form of apolipoprotein E are not as likely to develop AD. ApoE primarily acts as a modifier of the age at which people develop Alzheimer’s.

A number of other genes may be associated with late-onset Alzheimer’s. Chromosome 12, for example, may have several genes that could provide some answers about what causes AD. While all of the genetic associations found in late-onset AD may not turn out to be risk factors, they illustrate that the emerging picture of what causes late-onset Alzheimer’s is very complex. Genetic factors may have a role, but they do not provide all the answers to the Alzheimer’s puzzle. Large differences in age of disease onset exist for identical twins. In some cases, the disease only affects one of them. These are two compelling facts that something besides genetics is involved. Environmental factors somehow play a part. In fact, the interaction of genetic and environmental factors may account for many of the differences in when and how the disease is expressed.

Symptoms in Older People Attributed to Other Causes

Because Alzheimer’s disease was originally identified in persons under 60 and other causes were considered for similar symptoms in older persons, it was thought to be rare. It wasn’t until the 1970s that several investigations led to the conclusion that Alzheimer’s disease was accountable for the symptoms found in older persons (Katzman, 1976). Since then, we have learned the disease is the most common type of dementia found in this population. Less than 10 percent of people with AD are under 60.

The Statistics

Five million cases of Alzheimer’s disease were expected in the year 2000 (Weiner, 1996). Worldwide it is estimated that 22 million people suffer from AD. The prevalence (number of people with the disease at one time) of the disease doubles every 5 years beyond age 65. It is estimated that about 360,000 new cases (incidence) will occur each year in the United States (Brookmeyer et al., 1998). Incidence increases significantly with age. For example, from 20 to 47 percent of those over age 85 have dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease accounts for over 50 percent of these cases. The U.S. population of older people will increase substantially in the near future. The aging of baby boomers will be responsible for a substantial increase in persons with the disease in the next three to four decades. By the year 2040, 14 million people in the United States are expected to have Alzheimer’s (Evans, 1990).

The prevalence of Alzheimer’s is not uniform among racial and ethnic groups. Some research suggests that the risk may be higher for African Americans and Hispanic Americans than for Caucasians. More research is needed to determine the basis for these differences. They may reflect different roles of environmental and genetic risks for development of AD. Non-Caucasians are living longer and will comprise an increasing percentage of the aging population in the future, especially in the older age group most vulnerable to Alzheimer’s. By 2050, the non-Caucasian percentage of the aging population over age 85 will have increased from 16 percent to 34 percent.

Alzheimer’s is the most common neurological disease that causes dementia, a syndrome characterized by loss of intellectual capacities and impairment of social and occupational functioning. The incidence of the disease in women is higher than in men. The disease knows no socioeconomic boundaries. Life expectancy is reduced by approximately one-third after development of AD. People with AD live an average of 8 to 10 years after diagnosis. The disease can last for up to 20 years. The rate of deterioration and severity varies.

Alzheimer’s disease is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, killing more than 100,00 people annually. But respiratory conditions, congestive heart failure, and infections, which develop in the late stages of the disease, are often given as the cause of death and make this fact less striking.

Cost of Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s care is estimated to cost the United States more than $100 billion a year (Weiner, 1996). The estimated annual cost of caring for a person with mild AD is $18,408; for a person with moderate AD, the cost is $30,096. The cost for caring for a person with severe AD is $36,132.

The cost experienced by the individuals directly affected by Alzheimer’s goes deeper. People with Alzheimer’s lose touch with the lifestyle and relationships that have been a source of identity and self-esteem. For the sake of safety, they may be required to relinquish some responsibilities prematurely, which can result in boredom, inactivity, and a greater sense of self-loss. With the appropriate opportunities, people with AD can be more meaningfully involved in life.

Family caregivers—who provide the majority of Alzheimer’s care—suffer substantial and immutable negative effects on their physical and mental health. Often they suffer a loss of self because caregiving engulfs their entire life.

Why?

I’ve heard it said,

"if there weren’t a God

we would invent one,

for in our hour of deepest need

we must have someone—

some power on which to call."

I don’t know...

I try hard to believe—

but we are rational creatures.

I must think,

or why was I given a mind?

I think and think

and it makes no sense.

Why would a loving Father

do this to my mate?

Why would he take from him

his mind—his pride

in being alive?

Why would he rob from him

his joy in being here?

Why leave him thus—

a poor shambling caricature

of the man he was?

Surely not for my sake—

to test my power to believe.

If so, it has defeated its purpose.

It’s left me tormented and vulnerable

seeking an answer—and finding none—

and calling out—

Oh, God—if you are my God, Why?

Maude S. Newton

2

Symptoms and Phases of Alzheimer’s Disease

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease

A Neurological Condition Causing Deficient Thinking and Remembering

Alzheimer’s disease is a neurological condition that impairs the brain’s functioning. Its exact cause is not known, but the leading theories are explored in Chapters 4 and 16. Symptoms of the illness represent deficits in many areas of how a person remembers and thinks. For instance, problems with memory may be manifested as forgetting names, dates, places, whether a bill has been paid, or something said over and over. Intellectual abilities are lost eventually. Reasoning with the affected person is no longer a successful way to understand and deal with his or her problems. Judgment about everyday situations is drastically diminished. Capacity for verbal expression gradually declines and the person with AD cannot comprehend what others say to him. As the disease progresses, he may gradually lose the ability to speak. Psychiatric symptoms such as delusions and hallucinations can occur. The person can become anxious, restless, agitated, and may even appear to be depressed. His personality will change. In fact, he may not seem to be the same person.

Alzheimer’s disease has a group of symptoms characteristic of a syndrome known as dementia. This condition of the elderly becoming forgetful and unable to adequately care for themselves was once called senility. Terms such as senility are used less frequently to describe AD, but other terms are still used. Senile dementia, or primary degenerative dementia, may be used occasionally to describe AD. Rather than being told a family member has Alzheimer’s, families frequently hear that loved ones have dementia. In some cases, neither families nor professionals clarify that diagnosis, giving the impression that loved ones have dementia but not AD.

There are numerous reasons why family members do not clarify that a diagnosis of dementia might actually be Alzheimer’s. When a doctor makes a diagnosis, some people are not likely to question it. Families who had feared a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and then receive a diagnosis of dementia may avoid clarification. Because of denial and distress, families block diagnostic clarification, being more comfortable with any diagnosis that is not Alzheimer’s. In these situations, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease may be understood to be distinctly different conditions. Families are unaware that Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia.

There are several reasons family members are not told loved ones have Alzheimer’s when they probably do. The doctor may want to observe the patient longer before making the diagnosis of AD. It is difficult to get persons with AD symptoms to the doctor’s office or other locations where evaluations are done. Physicians may not be able to complete their evaluation. In such cases, it may not be appropriate for them to make the diagnosis of AD. Physicians may believe the person has Alzheimer’s but may not make the diagnosis. Family members who receive a general diagnosis or no diagnosis may be confused when they talk with others who are caring for people with identical symptoms diagnosed as AD.

Caregivers who do not know or understand they are taking care of a loved one with AD or another type of dementia have no reason to change how they relate to their loved one. Not being told the diagnosis is Alzheimer’s disease, they will not know to seek out an Alzheimer’s support group or gather information that will help them take care of their loved one. Their adaptation to the caregiving situation will be centered on psychiatric symptoms, behavioral problems, and perplexing changes in the personality of their loved one. It is important that family members clarify the diagnosis so that they have the opportunity to learn how to care for the person with AD and cope with this disease. People with Alzheimer’s have the right to know about their diagnosis so that they can make important decisions about their lives and learn to cope with changes that lie ahead.

Dementia: Loss of Intellectual Abilities

Dementia, in its broader sense, indicates a loss or impairment of a person’s abilities to use his or her mind. The essential feature of dementia is a loss of intellectual abilities severe enough to interfere with social or occupational functioning. An accountant with Alzheimer’s disease will be unable to perform her job because of impairments in memory, reasoning, and calculation abilities. A farmer will become unable to plant and harvest crops. Buying seed and figuring out how much seed to put in planters or drills will become impossible.

Although Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, it is not the only dementing illness. Multiple strokes can cause a dementia that resembles Alzheimer’s disease. Vascular dementia is the second most common type of dementia. When vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s are present, stroke damage can make symptoms of AD more severe. Research focused on AD has more closely examined other conditions that cause dementia. Some are not frequently discussed; others will become more familiar and possibly diagnosed more often. The growing focus on other diseases that can cause dementia is expanding our understanding of AD. For example, a form of dementia associated with mutations of the tau gene has been discovered.

Although people with these mutations did not develop the plaques associated with AD, their brains were riddled with tangles. Dementia with Lewy bodies, a Lewy body variant of AD, and frontotemporal dementia appear to be more common and are difficult to differentiate from AD. Lewy bodies are abnormal lumps that develop inside of nerve cells in the brain, but their appearance varies by location. Lewy body dementia is also associated with Parkinson’s disease in two areas of the brain: the substantia nigra and the locus ceruleus. Finally, the HIV-1 (human immunodeficiency virus) infection causes a severe form of dementia called HIV-1-associated dementia complex.

Depression and other psychiatric conditions can appear to be the results of dementia. In the elderly, severe depression may resemble dementia. This condition used to be called pseudodementia or false dementia. When severe depression is thought to cause impaired memory but memory does not improve with successful treatment of depressive symptoms, some type of dementia is probably developing.

Underlying medical conditions can cause symptoms that suggest dementia, for example, vitamin B12 deficiency, thyroid disturbances, and pernicious anemia. Proper treatment usually reverses the symptoms. When symptoms do not respond to medical treatments, the suspicion increases that Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia is present.

Alzheimer’s disease is a probable diagnosis given only after all other potential causes of dementia have been identified and treated or ruled out. Other treatable conditions can be identified in this process. An individual’s functioning and quality of life may improve by treating other health problems that coexist with AD.

Some medical tests have been developed to help diagnose AD, but none are 100 percent accurate. As the accuracy of diagnosis has improved and more attention has been given to mental status and performance of activities of daily living, the process of ruling out other conditions just to make the diagnosis of AD is no longer necessary. Other possible conditions are always considered, but Alzheimer’s is no longer viewed as a diagnosis of exclusion. The diagnosis can be made on the basis of history and identification of symptoms that constitute a dementia syndrome.

The diagnostic criteria for dementia of the Alzheimer’s type as specified by DSM-IV (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) stipulate symptoms and how they can be recognized and measured by a person involved in the diagnostic process. Multiple cognitive deficits must have developed and be manifested by both (1) memory impairment and (2) one or more of the following cognitive disturbances: aphasia, apraxia, agnosia, and/or a disturbance in executive functioning. Executive functioning refers to cognitive abilities that involve planning, organizing, sequencing, and abstracting. (Aphasia, apraxia, and agnosia are explained later in this chapter.) Other conditions must also be met. For instance, the course of the disease must be characterized by a gradual onset and continuing cognitive decline, and not be due to other known medical or psychiatric conditions.

First Criterion for Dementia: Severe Loss of Intellectual Functioning

The first criterion for dementia is the loss of intellectual abilities of sufficient severity to interfere with social or occupational functioning. Not only are these abilities impaired but they are affected to the degree that the person cannot perform usual work-related activities satisfactorily. For instance, a teacher will be unable to prepare lessons and keep his presentations to the class organized and comprehensible. He may be unable to provide information that was very easy for him to grasp before the Alzheimer’s process began. New academic demands may become quite stressful. In social situations he may have trouble following conversations and become confused by new points of discussion. Social demands can become more troublesome, and he may withdraw or become more anxious in social situations. His responses to other people may make less sense and may not be very well related to the topic at hand.

Routine Activities Become Increasingly Difficult

As Alzheimer’s disease progresses, a person’s ability to successfully carry out familiar activities of daily living will decline. The thinking abilities required to cook a meal, pay bills, clean house, bathe, dress, or even dial a telephone will diminish gradually. Because of memory problems, the person may also claim that tasks have been done, although it is quite evident they have been overlooked.

Memory Problems

Memory impairment has many manifestations during the course of Alzheimer’s disease. Forgetfulness is often listed as a condition of old age, and in fact some memory loss is normal in later years. Misplacing keys or a checkbook is something all of us have experienced, regardless of our age. The memory impairment that occurs with Alzheimer’s disease is much more pervasive and disabling. Problems with memory are usually the earliest and most obvious symptom of this condition. It is also a symptom that is often denied by individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.

Recent memory, that is, memory for events and information experienced over the past half hour, is most affected earlier in Alzheimer’s. Such memory loss obviously affects a person’s daily living circumstances. Bills are not paid, the gas may be left on, appointments are missed, or keeping track of a daily routine is disturbed. Immediate recall is the ability to repeat something that has just been said. Persons with Alzheimer’s disease may have good immediate recall, but little information is likely to be remembered later. New information is not easily remembered.

Recent memory problems also make it difficult for persons with an Alzheimer’s-type dementia to learn new material or activities. For example, keeping up with time and place, learning new names, or remembering a shopping list, which involve recent memory abilities, become increasingly difficult as the disease progresses. Disorientation, which involves forgetting time, person, and place, can occur in Alzheimer’s disease. For example, the person will reach a point when he cannot remember the day of the week, the month, or the year. Such disorientation and memory problems will contribute to the person’s getting lost and will be especially evident in new situations or places.

Memories of the Past Remain Longer

Remote memory is the person’s grasp of his past. For instance, this involves information about where he was born, when he was born, his parents and siblings, where he attended school, and when he graduated from school. Personal history is recorded in remote memory. Remote memory also includes facts about past presidents, wars, economic and political events. In the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, remote memory is less obviously affected but becomes more noticeably impaired over time. Direct questions or confrontations will expose gaps that exist in remote memory. Distant memories may serve as a refuge when recent memory becomes so severely affected that the individual cannot relate to what is currently happening.

Maintenance of daily routines is helpful for memory-impaired persons. Such routines can help organize a life that has become unpredictable and insecure because failing memory cannot assist the individual in controlling daily events and interactions.

The loss of intellectual functioning and impaired memory are essential ingredients in an Alzheimer’s-type dementia, but several other symptoms of dementia must also be present. Some of these do not occur until later in the course of the illness and may vary considerably from one person to the next. At least one of the following symptoms must be present for primary degenerative dementia to be diagnosed.

Faulty Judgment—Dangerous Situations

Impaired judgment and insight are symptoms manifested in the lives of persons with Alzheimer’s disease. Impaired judgment occurs in many areas of the person’s life and can lead to dangerous consequences. For example, the person may insist on driving the car when it is clear her ability has been seriously impaired. She may insist she can manage her finances as well as anyone, even when obviously she cannot. Cooking and lighting stoves are activities where poor judgment may become evident as well as dangerous. Of course, the dementing process is responsible for impaired judgment. However, some environments encourage rather than restrict the exercise of poor judgment. Some caregivers may be understandably anxious about confronting these kinds of behaviors, but the need to intervene usually increases with the potential risks to the Alzheimer’s patients, especially when they carry with them risks to other persons. (Driving is a good example of this type of situation.)

Abilities to Discern Differences and Similarities Between Things

Impairment of abstract thinking is more difficult to recognize in everyday actions. It is more easily assessed by answers to certain types of questions. For example, proverbs such as Haste makes waste are difficult for persons with dementia to adequately explain. The similarities and differences between things cannot be discerned. A chair and desk are alike because both are furniture. Such associations are not likely to be made by the person with Alzheimer’s disease. Defining words and concepts are other examples of tasks that require abstract thinking or reasoning.

Alzheimer’s disease affects the cortex of the brain. The cortex is discussed more specifically in Chapter 16, but we should make one point here. There are several human functions controlled by the cortex, the brain’s outer layer. Some of these functions involve speech and movement abilities.

Aphasia—A Problem with Speaking and Understanding Language

One disturbance of cortical functioning associated with Alzheimer’s disease is aphasia. Aphasia is the loss of previously possessed abilities in language comprehension or production. Because of damage to the brain, an individual is unable to understand speech. Verbal expression also becomes disturbed in Alzheimer’s disease. These speech deficits do not occur abruptly, as is common with a stroke. Speech abilities gradually erode. Individual variations occur during the disease process, but usually speech problems begin with some difficulty in word-finding. When talking, the person may have trouble making a point or answering a question directly. Spontaneous speech can be wordy and evasive. His comments wander around the point but never get to it. Later, word-finding problems and inability to name objects become very apparent. Comprehension of what others say becomes impaired; thus, the person is reluctant to engage in conversation. Spoken words or combinations of words are also misused. Later, even misused words have less meaningful relationships to the words for which they are substituted. The person may even echo what is said to him. Finally, the ability to produce sounds and words is reduced because the person is having difficulty coordinating his speech apparatus. The complete inability to speak will occur in many persons during the very last stage of Alzheimer’s disease.

Difficulties in Performing Purposeful Movement

Additionally, difficulties in movement can occur with Alzheimer’s disease. Apraxia is the loss of a previously possessed ability to perform skilled and purposeful motor acts. It is not the result of weakness but rather it is brain damage that prevents a person from making an intended movement. It is sometimes hard to determine whether Alzheimer’s patients have trouble dressing themselves because of memory problems and the inability to grasp the logical sequence of the task or because they are exhibiting apraxia. Later in the illness, difficulties in grasping a fork, spoon, or cup and carrying out intended movements could be due to apraxia.

Inability to Recognize Objects and People

Agnosia, an inability to recognize objects and people, is another brain disturbance in Alzheimer’s disease. Agnosia is not a memory problem. Brain damage makes it impossible for information to be processed correctly. Visual information is distorted by the brain so that it is unrecognizable. The affected person may not recognize her home. At times, she may ask where her spouse is even though that spouse is sitting close by.

Number Skills Diminish and Are Lost

The ability to do mathematic calculations is also lost with Alzheimer’s disease. This is not merely a problem with memory; number skills are simply lost. Addition, subtraction, and other mathematical operations cannot be done successfully. Such problems create obstacles to successful daily living, particularly in paying bills and keeping checking accounts balanced. If the person is employed in a job that requires the use of mathematics